Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK

Paper Info
Page count 9
Word count 2527
Read time 10 min
Topic Sociology
Type Assessment
Language 🇺🇸 US


A trade union, an organization whose membership is composed of workers, mainly seeks to advance and protect the interests of its followers. To many people, trade unionism might sound irrelevant, outdated, and perhaps a topic for discussion in some history classes. Contrarily, pieces of academic literature associated with trade unions and workers’ movement have considerably increased in political, economic, and social-related disciplines (Grady and Simms, 2019). It is beyond conjecture to modulate the crucial role played by individualism in the contemporary world. Furthermore, society currently requires innovations in entrepreneurship and start-ups, which can generate more employment opportunities and contribute to the economic situation. Nonetheless, it could be ignorant to presume that unions are ostensibly irrelevant since about seventy percent of employed people work in a company, organization, or firm. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that everyone can venture into a business.

In employer-staff relations, principally, the former control more power and resources during bargaining, making the latter more exposed to more susceptibilities. Researchers have consistently established that the workforce feels enthused when they can present grievances without fear of being victimized, sacked, or intimidated (Grady and Simms, 2019). Motivation comes with positive impacts on employee performance, leading to enhanced work productivity. It is agreeable that management can address with ease employee issues when pursued through their elected representatives. In current societal discourse, individuals create groups in leading social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to exchange information and ideas with certain persons. The actions show a sense of belonging, which is truly a normal human feeling. The hierarchy of needs postulated by Abraham Maslow reinforces this by asserting that human beings require to have some sense of entitlement irrespective of the size of the groups, whether formed at the workplace, with friends, or with family.

In the United Kingdom, the labor unions and workers’ movements have a deep and entrenched history spanning centuries. Industrial relations in the nation have been at the epicenter of analysis and attention for many years. Since the beginning of the 18th century, trade unions in the country have ostensibly depended on voluntary arrangements during consultations and negotiations (Grady and Simms, 2019). Nonetheless, the situation has changed, and currently, the country has elaborate trade unionism structures, although with sheer challenges such as harsh pressure and strain. These are mostly linked to factors that include a change in employment trends and developments in the size of industrial institutions among many others. The stories relate to industrial unrest, pay rises, other forms of labor disturbances that occur regularly in news. Nonetheless, the situation is far much better when compared to the previous period. The U.K. presents an intriguing case for investigating the workers’ movement and trade unionism. With the recent financial crisis, reduced union membership, and ongoing economic changes, the paper examines the symptoms, causes, and recommendations to address the challenge encountered by the trade unions in the U.K.

18th Century Industrial Strike.
18th Century Industrial Strike. Source: TUC Collections, London Metropolitan University.

Description of the Issues

Globalization Threat

Increased scope of a trade union as currently reflected in society is a cause for its ongoing challenges in the U.K. Globalization has been immensely touted as the leading cause of challenges bewildering trade unions in the nation and even other territories across the world. Traditionally, labor unions majorly handled issues concerning employments rights on a national scale. Currently, the movement has increased its scope by integrating other matters, making championing for employment interests and employee protection just part of the roles (Grady and Simms, 2019). For instance, trade union now handles issues related to high employment rates, inequalities, diverse workforce, economic crisis, and escalated immigration. To effectively combat the harmful effects of globalization on trade unions, numerous approaches have been put in place to handle the situation.

Declining Union Membership

Low union membership is another symptom of challenges facing the U.K. trade unions. The weakness of organizations of industrial and economic democracy, especially labor unions as the representatives of employees’ collective interest is vital during a crisis. In the U.K., just like many other nations, labor unions have steadily lost huge membership, institutional influence, and power over the recent decades (Grady and Simms, 2019). The condition has exposed workers to little voice in responding to critical situations such as financial recession, changes in the labor markets, and even the ramifications of financialization.

The effects of long-running modifications about the powers of labor as well as capital have established a more fragmented and divided job market between those opting to stay in a secure work and surging number who do fail to support. It has resulted in stratification in commonalities with reduced solidarity in workers’ movement voice and fragmented interests being displayed by the members (Grady and Simms, 2019). Such a situation is detrimental since, without robust representation within organizations of industrial and economic democracy, reactions to challenges can further become tilted towards the side of powerful groups mainly the financial interests. Although the ramifications of weaker institutions’ voices become stark in times of crisis, they remain part of a lasting development seen in the ascendency of fresh corporate leadership normativity (Grady and Simms, 2019). While the U.K. was steps ahead in the broader trends of deteriorating workers’ movements influence globally, it is not rare in the manners the unions lost power within the economic and political realm.

Illustration of Declining Union Membership. 
Illustration of Declining Union Membership. Source: Office for National Statistics – United Kingdom.

Loss of Power and Influence

It is perhaps not astonishing that unions invested heavily in trying to acquire renewed influence at national and local platforms. The U.K has prioritized many interventions comprising efforts to enhance the legitimacy with firms, to grow membership among staffs, and to rejuvenate political influence (Grady and Simms, 2019). Notably, all these strategies and efforts have resulted in limited success, inferring the presence of restrictive institutional procedures to handle the resulting crisis shock and its consequences on individuals.

Critical Analysis of the Issue

Historical Perspective

The challenges facing trade unions in the U.K. can be traced to several years ago. Historically, the country’s industrial relations process has attracted portrayals such as voluntarist and informal terms with differences in definition but indicate the moderate absence of regulatory framework. A key aspect of collective action is immunity from a trial for acts such as promoting the violation of the contract that in other territories would draw liability (Grady and Simms, 2019). Voluntarism and informality tend to reduce union balance sheet overheads by lowering compliance charges. Specifically, voluntaristic strategy has expanded to the monitoring of union administrative matters.

To meet the fluctuating and diversified job markets, the U.K industries and organizations depended heavily on their workers’ versatility. Originally, the country’s industries were visibly small-scale, but with the industrial revolution, technological innovations are hard to handle; new equipment was costly and unreliable. To increase the economic performance in the early 1970s, the government agreed with the unions to continue offering the employees, full employment with appropriate benefits in reply, the unions would lower the wages by about 5 percent (Grady and Simms, 2019). Conversely, the economy slumped, forcing the administration to acquire an urgent loan from International Monetary Fund. The miner’s industrial unrest defeat between 1984 and 1985 inflicted damage on the country’s trade union. The situation saw a sharp reduction in union density at about 23 percent from 1980 to 2010. Since then, workers’ movements have continued to register the highest reduction in membership.

When the Conservative Party ascended into power after defeating the Labour Party, it restricted union mandates and influence under its new policies. Believing in a monetarist platform, the ruling party did not consider consulting workers’ movements over wages or even growing their welfare stage. To enhance growth, the party stood for privatization as well as reducing costs of labor. The period was marred by weak avenues of social discourse, declined amounts of trade union density, and increased levels of company prerogative in the place of work. Compared with other externally-owned firms such as the electronic sector, companies in shipbuilding, automotive, and steel performed poorly (Grady and Simms, 2019). The government resorted to closing coal industries, which were chief rivals to the nuclear division.

Government Regulations

The new trade union bill announced by the government further compounded the challenges facing the workers’ movement. The act gives the regulator for employers’ associations and trade unions extreme powers (Grady and Simms, 2019). For instance, it monitors the administrative particulars on labor disputes as well as political spending. The regulator will also manage the trade union records to streamline and guarantee discipline in resource utilization rather than subversion. The latter acts as the jury and judge of union undertakings and any subversion of set policies attract a penalty. More developments are needed in the U.K. trade unions, for instance, campaign for transformation in the legislative policy and renewal of peoples’ confidence and trust in the workers’ movement.

The law allows workers to engage or join a trade union in their respective places of work. The entitlement allows workers to be safeguarded against any form of disadvantage one might encounter as an employee (Grady and Simms, 2019). It is unlawful for any employer to reject staff employment, dismiss them, or choosing a job for redundancy due to their involvement in union membership events. The law also gives the same worker the privilege to refuse to register with a workers’ movement.

Protests against the New Trade Union Bill.
Protests against the New Trade Union Bill. Source: The Guardian.

Diminishing of Solidarity

Attaining solidarity has always remained elusive and needs a conscious procedure in detecting areas, which require collective interest and voice. Solidarity compels an individual or team to associate with a wider set of joint values and interests, especially in a setting that promotes direct and clear values for that group or individual. Ideally, groups or individuals with unique strength needs to identify with and help those weaker persons in labor markets, organizations, and society at large. Trade unionism thrives on the model of solidarity and collectivism (Grady and Simms, 2019). The two concepts serve as the rallying cry, in which groups and individuals structure their actions. The form and nature of solidarities vary between backgrounds, but the underlying concept rests on the notion of teams or individuals supporting every collective undertaking. Organic and mechanistic solidarity to some extent has participated in creating weaker links in trade unions in the country.

Prospects for trade unions to erect mechanistic solidarities have drastically diminished since job market engagement has diversified by bringing workers who might not share the historical union spirit seen in the extractive or manufacturing industries. Interventions to rebuild collectivisms in mechanistic style have resulted in tendencies to emphasize top-down notions, which marginalize employees with constricted set of interests (Grady and Simms, 2019). Building collectivism with a workforce that depicts an increased range of competing interests necessitates clear and strongly articulated narratives.

Neo-liberal Assault

Key to the conservative regime in the U.K was the deregulation of the labor market, flexibility, elevation of competitiveness, entrepreneurial and individualism values, as well as marketization of the public sector. To meet these broad aims, a policy of trade union exclusion was prioritized with regulation and restriction of the mandates of unions becoming integral aspects of the plan (Grady and Simms, 2019). Chances were then availed for employers to exploit trade union weaknesses. Many companies and organizations utilized this advantage and consequently, further restricting numerous union options. Moreover, the legislation targeted to attain the individualistic perspective of union democracy championed by neo-liberal initiatives has brought mixed consequences. The jurisdictive changes have resulted in more centralized union governments. For instance, the advent of postal ballots led to decreased extents of membership involvement in polls for high-ranking positions in numerous unions with reduced influence and roles in democratic undertakings in intermediary levels like districts and regions.

Recommendations to Address the Issue

  1. First, the decline in membership density in trade unions depict failure to fix order challenge. Unions can counter this problem by increasing private goods by augmenting emphasis on representation and benefits to retain members. While such an undertaking might raise charges subscriptions and expenditure, it a beneficial process worth participating in.
  2. Second, collective action challenges make unions increase members switching costs, maybe by applying for seniority-related benefits. The utilization of activists instead of full-time union officials as representatives might considerably impact administrative costs. To counter this challenge, unions deliberately modify representative structures to promote activism to lower administrative costs. Such activism is more prospective where employers offer time off as well as facility subsidies for activities. Unions are arguably more likely to undertake such processes when they believe the spillover advantages from joint actions such as employee voice or productivity improvements. Attendant and voice efficiency are part of efficiency enhancements expansions from joint action. Therefore, union financial measures are essential indicators of viability.
  3. Third, there is a need to address membership issues by exploring the price elasticity of demands for membership. The U.K. unions have a paltry portion of average earnings as a subscription fee, and even with this small band, no sign of increment can be seen. It is presumed inter-union rivalry has resulted in a decline in membership fees as well as diminishing members.
  4. In addition, trade unions are commonly known to be bureaucratic and multifaceted since decisions once reached can be hard and slow to reverse. They also consistently exhibit what they believe is theirs, neglecting the bigger community. Therefore, the trade unions should attempt to delink these retrogressive traditional structures by embracing organizing model aspects, which connect to the social unionism movement. However, many still find it hard to drop their longstanding practice.
  5. Lastly, economic globalization is inescapable, and therefore, the U.K. trade unions must find a constructive way of converting the adverse effects of this process into constructive opportunities for effective reversal of this negative trend. For instance, the unions can strongly embark on participating more in social networks as well as local communities while comprehending the worker’s environment from outside and inside the workplace. They can also work alongside individuals who do not have common views as theirs and incorporating diverse teams that encompass youths and even immigrant employees. The changes might begin small but can present far-reaching effects in the long run.


In conclusion, the paper has offered deep insights on the symptoms, causes, and recommendations to address the challenges of worker’s movement and trade union in the U.K. It has also emerged that the country has a long and protracted history of trade unions. In what was once a thriving institution, its decline appears to be a well-choreographed scheme by different regimes to suffocate unionism. Key symptoms of the union’s challenges are seen on numerous levels. Examples are deteriorating membership, weak influence and power, and tussles to expand scope brought by increased globalization. The causes of these challenges are intertwined as seen by some of the elements that cut across. Some of the cases encompass history alignment of unionism, harsh government regulations, lack of solidarity, and neo-liberal assault. In this current societal dispensation, there is a need to accept realities brought by globalization and establish ways of promoting trade unions to levels that are commensurate to the desires of ardent members.

Reference List

Grady, J. and Simms, M. (2019) ‘Trade unions and the challenge of fostering solidarities in an era of financialization’, Economic and Industrial Democracy, 40(3), pp.490-510. Web.

Cite this paper


NerdyBro. (2022, June 7). Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK. Retrieved from


NerdyBro. (2022, June 7). Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK.

Work Cited

"Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK." NerdyBro, 7 June 2022,


NerdyBro. (2022) 'Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK'. 7 June.


NerdyBro. 2022. "Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK." June 7, 2022.

1. NerdyBro. "Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK." June 7, 2022.


NerdyBro. "Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK." June 7, 2022.


NerdyBro. 2022. "Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK." June 7, 2022.

1. NerdyBro. "Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK." June 7, 2022.


NerdyBro. "Workers’ Movement and Trade Unions in the UK." June 7, 2022.